cover image The Search for the Panchen Lama

The Search for the Panchen Lama

Isabel Hilton. W. W. Norton & Company, $25.95 (335pp) ISBN 978-0-393-04969-5

While working on a documentary film, British journalist Hilton was permitted to accompany the Dalai Lama as he sought to identify the 11th incarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second-highest spiritual authority of Tibet's ruling Buddhist sect. This excellent and artfully written book (part of which has appeared in the New Yorker) tells the complicated recent history of the Panchen Lama. The 10th incarnation died under mysterious circumstances in 1989 and is considered by many Tibetans to have been a traitor. The 11th--still a child--is missing; the six-year-old boy was detained along with his family in the mid-'90s by Tibet's Chinese rulers and has not been heard from since. Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities have offered another child as the spiritual leader incarnate. Although she reveals the end of the story in the early pages of the book, Hilton relates this history with great drama and subtle wryness (for Westerners, she says, Tibet is ""a kind of religious Disneyland""). Her wonderfully detailed writing illustrates the spiritual and political contours of these events. She describes, for example, a group of Tibetan lamas' two-day journey to Lhamo Latso Lake, where they went to gain insight that helped them find the reincarnated Panchen Lama; their trek, which involved 20 yaks, a video camera and a set of binoculars, was also monitored closely by Chinese spies. Hilton reports the story of the quest with great skill, weaving the history of Tibet with visits to monasteries in Tibet, China and India and conveying the power of a religion to survive the destruction of its institutions, the imposition of martial law, jailings and death in labor camps and prisons. (May)